Tephilin, Tefillin, or Phylactery? But We all Agree

            January 2013    
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Momma, Why do my Tephilin have to be Black?

By Nachum Mohl

"Momma, Why do my tephilin (phylactery) have to be Black? I like blue instead!"

So what is the answer, momma? Why do tephilin have to be black?

We all accept that tephilin are black boxes that are worn by people when they pray in the morning. Every religious group from the very observant to the non observant accepts the notion of tephilin and that they are black, but where exactly do we know that we Jews put on tefilin?

There are really many laws concerning the tefillin. They have to be black, the boxes have to be square, the one on the head has a Hebrew 'shin' on the side and has four compartments and the one on the arm has only one compartment. Every one seems to agree that the teffilin are made from animal skin (leather) and has inside parchment on which is written certain special verses from the Torah. On all of this everyone one agrees whether religious, ultra religious, non-religious or not practicing at all, all of the various groups of Jews agree to what makes up tefilin.

Even though the fact that every one agrees what is tephilin, which is of itself fairly amazing, what is really amazing is that if you were to look into the Torah where it talks about tephilin, you could never ever understand what exactly is being spoken about.

Here we have a strange case of everybody agreeing on what are tephilin; that is every one who normally does not agree to the other and they are agreeing on something that is very obscure in the Torah.

In the first paragraph of the Shema prayer it is written:

    "And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thy hand, and they shall be for frontlets between thine eyes." (Deuteronomy 6:8)

And in the second paragraph of the Shema:

    "And you shall place these My words in your heart and in your soul; and ye shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes." (Deuteronomy 11:18)

And still in another place:

    "And it shall be for a sign upon thy hand, and for frontlets between thine eyes; for by strength of hand the LORD brought us forth out of Egypt." (Exodus 13:16)

The problem in all of these three verses is that there is no mention of color, size, or even what are the 'frontlets' or the 'sign upon thy hand'. Rashi, the master explainer of the Torah, seems to feel that the frontlets, (Hebrew: totafot) are some mysterious word that is made up of two foreign words: tot is Coptic for two and fot is African for two, hence the four compartments on the tephilin of the head.

Although this may seem ridiculous to some, it goes to show the difficulty in understanding just what the tephilin are; frontlets are totafot and divined to be our tephilin. Yet it is just from these obscure passages that all the various factions amongst the Jews agree that it means tefillin - black tefilin - even though no reference is made to the color.

However, seek as you may, you will not see in the Torah any reference to any of the numerous laws that are accepted by all the various Jewish groups regarding exactly what consists of tefillin.

So how do we know the laws? And how come every one accepts them?

This is the most interesting part. Nothing was given regarding tephilin in the Torah in a clear manner. Every thing that we know was handed down from Moses at Mount Sinai.

Moses, too, did not understand many passages in the Torah, but he was fortunate, he was able to communicate directly with G-d and get the answer to what was unclear to him. All that we know about tephilin today is handed down word of mouth from Moses to the seventy elders and from the elders to the various rabbis in each generation until the time of the redaction of the Mishna. All was from teacher to student until Rabbi Judah finally compiled the Mishna and committed it to writing. This was a period of well over a thousand years.

On top of the Mishna was added the Talmud which comes to explain and open up the words of the Mishna. From this come all that we know about how to wear tephilin, when to wear them, what they are made from, what is inside of them, their color and shape, all of this comes from our tradition from Moses down to us and never was written in the Torah, nor written at all until over a thousand years past.

This is amazing because here you find one thing all Jews agree upon (whether they wear them or not): tephilin. And it must be noted that they all agree on something which is not clear in the Torah rather it is dependent on our Oral Tradition - yet everyone, but everyone, can and do agree to it.

This is the Oral Tradition. There is much more in it than just tefillin, but that is something that you, yourself, will investigate on your own someday.

This is such a great thing that we should all sit down and make a l'chaim on it. Maybe making a l'chaim is the second thing that all Jews agree to, but I know that when we Jews do sit down to make a l'chaim, we can find something else to argue about.


from the January 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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